TONY KING CAN recall an irksome time, some yrs ago, as he would constantly swap his Sexy Shoes Women for any convenient kind of Converse All-Stars throughout the workday, depending on whether he was leading an important meeting or overseeing a fairly laid-back photo shoot. “I was always changing,” he was quoted saying.
That stopped around 2008, when Mr. King, 43, bought his first pair of Common Projects leather sneakers. Suddenly, the CEO and creative director of the latest York-based digital agency King & Partners, whose clients include 3.1 Phillip Lim, could leave the house in a single pair of shoes right for pitching business or going out for Peronis. Bonus: They encased his feet so painlessly he could walk anywhere.
“It was a socially and professionally acceptable sneaker seems more like a shoe but is comfortable similar to a sneaker,” he explained. To put it differently: A size-10 Holy Grail. Though he still pulls out his Church’s for “very smart meetings,” he mostly lives in sneakers and owns around 20 pairs of Common Projects, in various styles, materials, colors and states of wear.
Mr. King is hardly alone in discovering that high-end, designer sneakers can constitute an important area of the modern menswear wardrobe. While Masters in the Universe still dutifully pair their Super 100s suits with proper leather lace-ups, other men in offices as formal routinely pad around in upscale rubber-soled shoes. My own once-beloved wingtips are getting dusty, forsaken for a set of Adidas Stan Smiths made in collaboration with Belgian designer Raf Simons.
Luxury sneakers now dominate men’s footwear sales for e-commerce site Mr Porter and department shop Barneys New York. Within a telling move, the second recently combined the formal and casual shoe departments at its New York City and Beverly Hills locations. (“Did we really need to separate the John Lobb guy and also the Louboutin guy?” asked Tom Kalenderian, the store’s executive vice president of men’s, talking about consumers of traditional dress shoes and those seeking designer Christian Louboutin’s studded sneaks.)
How did we have here from that point? A confluence of factors have reached play. First, dress codes have grown to be increasingly relaxed during the last decade-remember when sneakers weren’t allowed in night clubs?-making it possible for more creativity and freedom. Second, as designer-sneaker sales have ticked up as well as the shoes’ 24/7 relevance has somewhat justified the retail price, more designers have started paying attention to the market.
Though luxury brands have been making sneakers ever since the introduction of Gucci’s tennis shoes in 1984, Mr Porter buying-and-sales director Toby Bateman credits both Common Projects, which launched in The Big Apple in 2004, and French label Lanvin with legitimizing the course. Lanvin’s slim-soled tennis-style sneaker using a patent leather toecap, introduced in 2006, moved the needle within the luxury world, he explained: “Everyone embraced it because it was wearable. It didn’t appear like that you were wearing running sneakers with your suit or smart trousers. That led to many others entering the arena.”
Which includes folks you’d assume would sniff on the very idea of Designer Shoes. Tom Ford-who launched his menswear label with stores staffed by butlers and uniformed maids-now makes several kinds of sneakers, ranging from $790 to $1,090. This spring, venerable footwear brand Berluti also launched sneakers, all priced over $1,000, some in suede yet others in their signature burnished patina leather.
Italian maker from the ne plus ultra in cashmere, Loro Piana, has low-key velvety suede jogging shoes for $925. “If I went back five years in time and thought to the guys at Loro Piana, ‘I predict in 5 years, you’ll have got a suede athletic shoes,’ they could have laughed me out of the showroom,” said Mr Porter’s Mr. Bateman.
Now there’s a sneaker for each and every man-regardless of his aesthetic. “You don’t have to be wearing a set of drop-crotch sweatpants to be wearing [designer] sneakers,” said Barneys’ Mr. Kalenderian. “You can put them on using a gorgeous suit and appear similar to a million bucks.”
Some, more controversially, even pair all of them with a tuxedo. Bally design director Pablo Coppola, who said he no more wears dress shoes whatsoever, donned sneakers just for this year’s Costume Institute Gala with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, arguably Manhattan’s most prominent social event. When in formal clothes, he was quoted saying, “wearing sneakers can be a way of dressing 08dexspky down a little bit.” Michael Schulson, Philadelphia-based chef and owner of restaurants Sampan and Graffiti Bar, also advocates sneakers having a tux. “I have got a black-tie event next week and I’ll probably wear a set of Lanvin’s or Cipher’s Parallax [style],” he stated. However, he added, “certain people can pull it well, others can’t. It’s not for all.”
To return to those galling prices, some men will argue that it’s ridiculous to pay, say, $545, for Saint Laurent’s SL/01 Court Classic sneakers, which look a good amount like Adidas’s classic Stan Smiths that cost around $75. But the majority designer sneakers are produced with Italian leather on par with that used for dress shoes, hide that will look more refined and last longer compared to leather of mass-market versions. And while they might take cues from more affordable styles by Nike or Adidas, their upgraded air presents them entree where cheaper sneakers wouldn’t dare tread.
Athletic brand “sneakers look so ragged after a few weeks,” said King & Partners’ Mr. King. Designer versions feel nicer for much longer, he added. “And they create me look a little bit more decked out, like I put more effort in than [just lacing on] a pair of Converse.”
Will the designer sneaker trend soon exhaust your steam? Perhaps. However if there’s one particular factor cementing its spot in menswear, it’s comfort. “No matter what happens with fashion,” said David Sills, men’s creative director at Hirshleifer’s department shop in Manhasset, N.Y., “when a man wears sneakers and gets that amount of comfort and style, it’s hard to get him back to shoes.”
Mr. Sills has put his money where his mouth is, recently unveiling a place from the store created from Carrera marble, steel and glass that’s dedicated to sneakers – “a temple towards the category,” he was quoted saying. And the retailer himself has swapped his stiff-soled Aldens for a pair of Yeezy Boosts, the Brand Shoes from the high-end collaboration between Adidas and Kanye West. “You can put them on everywhere,” he explained. “Every restaurant, every event.”